Hindi cinema has, for many decades (much of its existence?) been stereotyped. Mush, melodrama, music. The usual plot of countless films over the years has been dominated by a few given elements, even when the film’s main story may straddle other genres, such as thriller or comedy. You can’t have a Hindi film without romance, song and dance, and melodrama, seems to be the rule followed by most film makers.
Which is why the exceptions to the rule come as such a breath of fresh air. Majhli Didi, Dekh Kabira Roya, Kaanoon, Ittefaq… and this touching, tragic yet heartwarming story of a toddler wandering through the streets of big, bad Bombay.
Chetan Anand is supposed to have started filming Aakhri Khat with no real script in mind, just following—with a handheld camera—toddler Bunty as he made his way through Bombay, going here, there and everywhere. A baby on his own in a frightening city. From that emerged this story of a blighted love, a soured romance that ends in tragedy.
The Aakhri Khat (‘last letter’) refers to a letter received by Govind (Rajesh Khanna, in his debut role), a sculptor who lives in Bombay. Govind has been receiving these letters, each of them dropped into the letter box at the gate of his home, and they have upset him immensely. He yells for his servant Moti (Mohan Choti), asking him if this time he has managed to see who left the letter, and when, but Moti hasn’t seen anyone.
But we, the audience, have. We have seen Laajo (Indrani Mukherjee), dressed in a tattered sari but with her 15 month old baby Buntu (Bunty) nattily attired, as she makes her way around Bombay. It’s obvious that Laajo is distressed by the city: its noise and its crowds overwhelm her, she searches out quiet corners where she can take shelter.
She looks, furtively, for Govind. She goes to his house, but does not venture in, instead standing outside and looking longingly at it before dropping the letter into the letter box. One evening, she even manages to find her way to the nightclub Govind frequents. She does not meet Govind, but a friend of Govind’s, Rajni (Naqi Jehan), emerging from the nightclub, sees Laajo. Buntu, standing a little away on the pavement, starts wailing just then, and Laajo hurries away to comfort him. Rajni is puzzled.
Laajo plays hide-and-seek with Buntu, mother and baby sharing a little bit of fun and happiness as they run about between stacks of bamboos piled up on the beach, forming a maze…
But the joy is short-lived. Laajo, every now and then, clutches her chest, feeling an ‘attack’ come on—she seems to have a weak heart.
And this is what she’s written about in that last letter to Govind: she’s dying of the same disease that killed her mother. Already, twice, she has suffered these attacks. The third one will kill her, but she will leave Buntu at his doorstep before that. He must believe her: Buntu is his child.
By the time he receives this last letter, Govind does not need further convincing. He seems to have acknowledged that Buntu is his child, and that he has been cruel to Laajo—even if we don’t know yet exactly what happened to tear apart a romance that seems idyllic in the few snatches of flashback through which it’s shown.
How Govind met Laajo in Kullu, how they got ‘married’ (as always, when it comes to such situations, there is a semblance of some form of ‘marriage’ rather than merely jumping into bed) at the Hadimba Devi Temple: all of this emerges over the next couple of days, as Govind goes to the police to try and find Laajo and Buntu. Inspector Naik (Manvendra Chitnis), who takes on the case, is frustrated at Govind’s demands: how can Govind hope to find one woman in Bombay, when he doesn’t even have a photograph of that woman?
But Govind does have something that can help: in the halcyon days when he and Laajo were in Kullu, he had made a life-size sculpture of hers. If Inspector Naik agrees, Govind suggests that a photograph of the statue could be of help.
Inspector Naik goes along and takes a photo of the statue—a sensuous one, seen through a lover’s eyes—and when he shows an interest in the Govind-Laajo story, Govind tells him, in snatches, as the two men go about Bombay, trying to follow leads, Naik checking up with other police stations along the way, spreading the word, as well as the photograph.
The photograph has its desired effect: it helps find Laajo. Sadly, a dead Laajo. As she had prophesied, the third attack has killed her. Unfortunately, before she could take Buntu and leave him at Govind’s home. And, worse still, Buntu (who is a toddler much prone to wandering off on his own, a born explorer), had been away on one of his little jaunts when Laajo died. She had set off to look for him, and had suffered that fatal attack while searching for her child.
Govind sees Laajo’s corpse in the police station to which it’s been brought (and where she’s been identified). He’s shattered, and stricken by guilt, but now there is another, even more frightening fear gnawing at him: where is Buntu? If Laajo’s dead, who is looking after Buntu? And if nobody’s there to care of him, how is the infant surviving?
But Buntu is surviving. He misses his mother now and then and calls for her—he even goes searching for her in that maze of bamboos—but he also goes about on his own, finding food and drink for himself, sleeping where he can.
Will the paths of these two cross, the baby who is now motherless and the father who has never even seen his child?
What I liked about this film:
Everything, really. It’s an unusual film, not so much in the story (there are, after all, lots of other films about illegitimate children who are rejected by suspicious biological fathers), but in its treatment. Buntu is the focus of Aakhri Khat, and the fact that the only word he can really utter (besides the meaningless gurgles and coos of toddlerhood) is “Mama” makes him an even more helpless child than other children-on-their-own, as in Boot Polish or Toofaan aur Diya.
That could have been terribly melodramatic and pathetic, but oddly enough, it isn’t. Yes, I did feel my eyes well up when little Buntu looks forlornly for his Mama amidst the bamboos, but the rest of the time, this is an intrepid child who makes his own way through life, seeking out food and drink and play as best as he can—and with a startling degree of success, too.
And that success is not a result of mere coincidence or anything artificial: Buntu is too small and too naïve to be able to resort to artifice of any kind, but instinct drives him to find solutions for himself, whether it’s nicking milk bottles from doorsteps or (charmingly) helping himself to the prasad piled up in front of the idol at a temple.
The second important aspect of Aakhri Khat which I liked a lot was that the characters came across as real people: three-dimensional, their characters shades of grey rather than extremes of black and white. Govind, though the leading male character, is by no means ‘heroic’: the callous way in which he treats Laajo is contemptible, and when an angry and frustrated Inspector Naik calls Govind out, flinging in his face all the ways in which Govind is at fault here, Govind has no option but to admit that yes, he is to blame.
Rajni, too, though slotted as the ‘other woman’—or the potential other woman—is a level-headed person, a woman who sees the injustice of what the man she loves has done. She does not fall into the stereotypical bracket of the conniving, jealous third wheel: in fact, it is Rajni who eggs Govind on to do the right thing.
And there are the everyday people. The priest in the temple, the vendors of snacks and cold drinks and chuskis, the passersby. They don’t go out of their way to be kind to Buntu, but it’s not as if they’re utterly heartless. There is the chuskiwallah, for example, who gives a thirsty Buntu a chuski for free the first day, even though he can see that Buntu doesn’t have any money. The next day, when Buntu again turns up, silently demanding chuskis, the man calmly (and not unkindly) says that Buntu can’t have a chuski today because he doesn’t have the money for it; but he gives Buntu a glass of cold water, anyway.
And, there is the way things connect, the mirroring of motifs. Buntu goes looking for his mother, calling “Mama? Mama?” through the very same bamboo maze in which he had played with her just a couple of days earlier. Govind, seeing Laajo’s dead body, breaks down and—in the background, we hear the song that he had once sung, stopping Laajo from going: Aur kuchh der thehar. As if he’s begging Laajo to come back from the dead, to not leave him thus.
Last but not the least, there’s the music. With lyrics by Kaifi Azmi, the score of Aakhri Khat features some of Khayyam’s most unusual compositions. While the seductive Aur kuchh der thehar or the bright, gentle Bahaaron mera jeevan bhi sanwaaro are probably more recognizably Khayyam’s style, the peppy Hai kuchh bhi nahin o my darling (which, by the way, is missing from the version on Youtube) is a completely different style—very Western, very dance club style. My absolute favourite song from Aakhri Khat, though also very Western, is in another style altogether: Rut jawaan jawaan, sung by (and picturized on) a very young Bhupinder—with the iconic Chic Chocolate playing the trumpet in the background—is brilliantly stylish: it has a sensuousness and elegance that put it in the realm of all-time great ‘crooner’ songs for me (and possibly the only song featuring a male crooner).
What didn’t I like? Nothing, really. This is an unusual, interesting film that really touched me.
Tangential bit of humour:
When I was writing up this review, I searched online for ‘Aakhri Khat’ to see if I could glean any interesting behind the scenes information (the only bit I could discover, from Gautam Chintamani’s biography of Rajesh Khanna, was that Chetan Anand, in an attempt to prep the actor for the final scene in the film, ensured that Khanna got no sleep for the last three days—by the end, Khanna was a wreck, which was exactly how Govind is supposed to be by then).